People love to ask me, Rebecca, what is your therapy specialty? I never really know how to respond, but I do love to work on boundaries. Boundaries with work, relationships, and life!
Let me set the scene. It’s a typical Wednesday at work, our team is virtual so I hop on Microsoft Teams and we have our morning meeting at 8:30. We disperse at 9. I’m exhausted. I just put my 4 week notice in the previous week.
I check my email. From my supervisor: “Are you still willing to present next week”? In all honesty, I forgot about the presentation she had asked me to do. She asked me the previous month to do a presentation for the team. A presentation at OUR FIRST in person team meeting since March 2020. The meeting was cancelled.
Now let’s fast forward 5 days. It is Sunday night, I’m listening to Come As You Are By Emily Nagoski and I can hear the faint sound of rain outside. It’s the first day in awhile that the rain has not let up, it has made me feel a bit down, but I need to put together a presentation to give to my coworkers.
Coworkers I am leaving in 3 weeks. Coworkers at a job that is sucking the life out of me. Coworkers who TRULY do not give a crap what I am going to say. Now that I have talked enough about the ask for the presentation, I should tell you the topic. BOUNDARIES. My favorite topic to discuss.
When I was initially asked to do the presentation my supervisor said “You’re really good at turning this job off, so I’d like you to talk to the team about it.” I didn’t want to burst her bubble, but I don’t think I am great at boundaries with work. My second job starts right at the end of my first, so I just go into “therapist mode”. By the time I am done working my second job, I can’t even think about social work, therapy, or anything other than dinner, books, showering, and sleep.
Now let’s get in to why you’re actually hear to read. Boundaries. & Burnout. Let’s define what those are, in regards to this blog.
What Are Boundaries?
In the context that we will be discussing, we will consider boundaries as an invisible line that defines what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable. Boundaries can be physical (i.e. I will not stay at the office past 5p) or emotional (i.e. I will not work for a supervisor who is emotionally abusive). Boundaries are set by using time and space. (e.g, I will not work on another project until I have completed this project)
The definition of boundaries seems easy to many people, but put into practice it can be extremely difficult to implement.
What is Burnout?
According to WebMD “Burnout is form of exhaustion caused by constantly feeling swamped. It’s a result of excessive and prolonged emotional, physical, and mental stress. In many cases, burnout is related to one’s job. Burnout happens when you’re overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to keep up with life’s incessant demands.”
How are Burnout & Boundaries Related?
Boundaries can help prevent burnout. There is no erasure of burnout, it will always be around as long as we live in a capitalistic society that puts making money over wellbeing.
Alas, a conundrum! We must work to be able to survive but we also must protect ourselves to make sure we do not burnout. When I set a boundary, I set it to help myself not burnout. Boundaries help create a world that feels safe and comfortable, a world that I can work and still allow myself time to recover from work.
Burnout comes from a lack of boundaries in the workplace. It is that simple, that is how the two are related. Lack of boundaries breads burnout. So let’s work to prevent it.
How to Implement Boundaries to Prevent Burnout
In therapy, I discuss boundaries with my clients often and the thing I often hear is, “I just do not know how what to say.” My response is often “You just need to voice your needs.” That is all a boundary is, voicing what is okay and not okay with you, which is why it can be so difficult to do in a workplace.
Something we need to remember about boundaries, they are flexible and firm. Some boundaries are flexible while others can be things we are never willing to do. For myself, I have a flexible boundary of stopping work at 5p. 98% of the time it works, but sometimes I have work I need to finish up. Before changing a boundary I ALWAYS evaluate my feelings. If I am feeling overwhelmed, the boundary doesn’t move, if I am in a good place, the boundary can be moved. One firm boundary I have is that if a client is getting angry with my on the phone and cussing at me I say “I am going to hang up now, when you are ready to talk and not scream at me, please call me back.”
Let’s be honest with ourselves though, setting boundaries at work isn’t just saying things and hoping it will all work out.A healthy workplace sets boundaries from the top down. Having a CEO say “When you start to feel exhausted from your work, take a break.” is perfect boundaries. Management should set the boundaries for their employees, so employees feel comfortable setting them.
Let’s talk about some easy boundaries for work:
- I will stop working at (insert time to stop working here).
- Take a lunch and break EVERY DAY.
- Once I complete (x task), I will take a 5 minute break.
- If I start to feel overwhelmed, I will reach out to my supervisor.
- I will say no to extra tasks if I cannot commit the time needed for them.
- I will voice my needs to my peers and immediate supervisor.
- I am working on this project for the next 30 minutes and afterwards we can discuss the next item.
- Not answering a call when working hard on a project
Part of boundary setting is telling people our needs. We cannot expect people to read our minds, because they cannot. Now, before you come for me and say “Rebecca, I cannot make these boundaries at work, my job is too stressful.” I challenge you to think of ways to make boundaries at work. It’s important to remember, boundaries are not to keep others out, but to make us feel better. We can keep them to ourselves as well. Some of the examples above are things you do not have to tell anyone, just a promise to keep to yourself.
Just because you set boundaries does not mean the people you work with will. When other people do not set boundaries it is important to hold yours strong. I’ve had coworkers who sometimes want to “jump on a call at 4:25”, my workday ends at 4:30p. Often, if it cannot be resolved by 4:30p, I will ask if it can be pushed to the following day. Another person’s lack of planning does not mean an emergency on my end.
My Favorite Boundary to Set
A huge boundary that has truly worked for me, and honestly has put some people off, is when I am on PTO, I am on PTO. Do not call, text, email, or even think about me (that last one is a joke but you get what I mean)! I am fortunate to work at a job that everyone on my team does the same job. Every single one of my coworkers could pick up my job and do it. Therefore, they should not need to call me when I am out of office. In one instance I asked my supervisor to call if something happened with a client of mine and that is because they were very ill, not because I did not think someone else could handle it, but I wanted to express condolences to the family if they had passed.
This may be the moment I knew I needed to look for another job. I put in an email to our team “Please do not call me on my personal cell.” I thought it was cheeky. My husband said it was rude. (shrugs). Honestly, it was in direct response to over half my team sending out emails that they would be out of the office on PTO but “Available by their personal cell if anyone had any questions.” Remember a few lines up when I said we all do the same job? So, why would I need to call and ask you something if you are out for 1 week? In case management, your notes should reflect everything you are doing.
My firmest boundary? When I take time off, I take time off. I recharge, restart, and honestly don’t think about that job AT ALL.
How do I stop thinking about work after hours?
As I stated above, I never really have time to think about my full time job because I am always rushing into my second job. However, that doesn’t mean I haven’t struggled to stop thinking about a family, client, deadline, or in general work that needed to be done. Let’s dive into some ways to decompress post work to help shut that brain down!
The first thing I recommend is going to therapy. Figuring out the real reason of why you are mentally tied to your job. Need a therapist? Check out my article here. Also, if you work from home, and seeing your computer makes you feel stressed, find a place to shut your computer down and leave it there!
I am not naïve and I am well aware many people do not want to go to therapy, so let’s discuss some ways to help decompress post work.
Come up with a post work “ritual”. Keep this ritual short, up to 10 minutes. Take a walk, deep breathing, video games, scrolling on your phone, having a conversation with a friend, anything to help you move your focus from work, to something else.
Then as you start to feel comfortable with that ritual, start to move towards expanding that time. If you can, give yourself 30 minutes to decompress from work. I am not a parent, so I know some parents might say “I don’t have 30 minutes for myself, so I don’t have time.” I work with a lot of parents and we talk about boundaries and burnout just like I do with the non parents. As a parent, you may not be able to make time for a large break but finding even a few moments to catch your breath, even sitting in the car for 3 minutes longer, but you must start somewhere.
Set some boundaries. Boundaries are flexible. Allow yourself to set them.